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NBA Playoffs, Lakers Suns: Game 3 was a nice win for Phoenix, but can they do it again?

May 24, 2010, 12:11 PM EDT

One of the things that made the second round of this year’s playoffs so bizarre was the prevalence of sweeps. It’s incredibly difficult for any NBA team to sweep another regardless of talent, because beating the same opponent four times in a row requires such an incredible level of focus and consistency. It just doesn’t happen all that often, and the losing team typically wins a game or two to delay the outcome even it it seems inevitable.

I wouldn’t say that a Laker win in the Western Conference Finals is inevitable, but one can’t help but wonder if last night’s Suns’ victory was a temporary diversion rather than real resistance. Phoenix won the game while playing solid — but not dominant — basketball, and is that really good enough to compete with this particular Lakers team?

It’s a complicated question, admittedly, and at its core, it begs us to analyze the sustainability of the Suns’ efforts on both ends of the court.

Offensively, one could actually argue that Phoenix survived (and thrived) in spite of two rather notable obstructions: the Suns shot poorly from three as a team and the usually solid bench was nowhere to be found. The reserves (including sharpshooters Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, and Goran Dragic) went 0-fer in 11 attempts from long range, but the starters didn’t really offer much long-range support, either. Jason Richardson made four of the team’s five attempts, which means that the rest of the starters (or really, Steve Nash and Grant Hill) weren’t doing all that much to balance the court.

On this night, it was probably for the best. The Suns fed Amar’e Stoudemire over and over, and he produced. Not only did Amar’e put up 22 field goal attempts, but he got to the line 18 times, and the Suns as a team shot 42 free throw attempts. Phoenix can survive a rainy day with that kind of scoring coming from the free throw line, but any free throw total that high will be met with some skepticism. That said, while Game 3 featured the same questionable calls that can be found in just about any NBA contest, this result was not entirely without precedent.

In Game 2, the Suns shot 32 free throws to the Lakers’ 22. The difference in attempts between the teams in that game may not have been as profound as the Game 3 differential, but the pace was notably higher in Game 3 (98 possessions to 92 in Game 2), and both Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash were far more assertive within the Phoenix offense on Sunday night. They combined for 13 attempts in Game 2 and 25 attempts in Game 3, which is more than enough to compensate for the generous bump of the team totals.

I wouldn’t say anyone should expect the Suns to shoot 42 free throws again in this series, but if Stoudemire, Nash, and the Suns remain aggressive on offense, they can still boast a considerable free throw advantage against the Lakers.

The bench will bounce back, the three-point shooting will no doubt return, and the total free throw attempts will drop slightly but could still be an advantage for Phoenix. All in all, there’s no reason to think the Suns can’t be even better offensively, which is good news for an already confident Phoenix team playing at home in Game 4.

On defense…well, that’s where the news isn’t quite so good. From the second quarter onward, the Suns relied on a zone defense that produced some impressive results. The Suns’ Game 3 fortunes turned on a time, with the zone sparking a 15-2 run going into halftime that gave Phoenix a seven-point lead. It was fun to watch the Suns’ defenders not only active and involved, but making the right rotations to prevent exploitations of the zone. Brilliant, brilliant move by Alvin Gentry.

Each defensive scheme has its own weaknesses though, and the zone is certainly no exception. The zone was so problematic for the Lakers not because it was perfectly executed (although the Suns certainly did a stellar job relative to their usual man-to-man defense, which has characteristically featured some poor rotations), but precisely because it was a zone. They settled for too many contested threes, didn’t properly utilize one of the best high post centers in the game in Pau Gasol, and didn’t employ the right kind of ball and player movement.

The Laker offense didn’t make any significant adjustments against the zone, and thus their usual movement was stifled. Kudos to L.A. for not stopping the ball, but they need to replace their usual cuts and slashes with moves more effective against the zone: baseline movement, overloading a player’s zone, etc. With NBA versatility, size, and speed at a coach’s disposal, it’s really only a matter of time before any NBA team cracks the zone, much less one with this much talent from coach down. Phil Jackson and his staff will work with the Lakers and hit the film room hard to show exactly how to attack the Suns’ zone D, and unfortunately for Phoenix, it’s that simple.

Andrew Bynum may not be the best counter to the zone, but any lineup featuring Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, and Lamar Odom is more than capable of getting easy shots against it. That’s not meant to be a slight against Phoenix’s defense in Game 3, which was much improved, but rather as a general statement concerning the limitations of the scheme. The zone can be incredibly effective over the course of a single game, but if the Suns are relying on it to win them the series (as they may be forced to, considering how ineffective their man defense has been), they’re in trouble.

That makes Phoenix’s Game 3 win a bit tough to replicate. Phoenix’s offensive potency has never really been in question in this series, but the Suns’ ability (or inability) to defend the versatile and efficient Laker offense sits in the spotlight during every game. That’s where these games (and this series) need be won, and unfortunately, the Phoenix zone is vulnerable to the law of diminishing returns; the more the Suns use the zone, the less effective it will be.

The key for Phoenix will be maintaining the same emphasis on defensive rotations in their usual defensive sets that they seem to exhibit in the zone, as the decreasing effectiveness of the zone will ultimately force the Suns to revert to man-to-man defense. If Phoenix can be even moderately successful without the zone, their offense will give them a shot to win Game 4 and perhaps a few more. If not, Game 3 was merely artificial resistance in a series that could be over sooner rather than later.

  1. Omnius - May 24, 2010 at 2:40 PM

    The Lost Suns got bailed out by the refs in game 3 and the Lakers had a little letdown after winning 8 straight playoff games spanning almost a whole month. The Lakers were due for a bad game and now that they have that losing feeling they’ll bounce back with far more determination and smart play to win game 4. Phil Jackson will have the Lakers ready to trash that wimpy zone defense the Setting Suns played. The Lakers will win games 4 and 5 and be off to beat the Celtics. Got to give the Setting Suns credit for playing tough and not laying down like the cowardly Orlando Mundane!

  2. DK Anderson - May 24, 2010 at 2:59 PM

    Bailed out by the refs? Oh, please! The Suns got to the line so much not because of biased officiate but because of the style of offense they were employing, and the fact that a hobbled Bynum had little choice but to foul when he couldn’t keep up…that injury’s something any real fan hates to see, even if they can’t stand the Lakers! The Lakers, on the other hand, were shooting a lot of jump shots, due to the zone defense. You don’t get to the line a lot doing that.
    The Lakers will definitely be better in Game 4; like the article says, Jackson and crew will be conducting a clinic on beating the zone. But by the same token, are the Suns going to have such a lousy shooting night again? The margin in Game 3 could easily have been 25 point if the Suns were shooting even close to their usual percentages from long range.
    Bottom line? If the Lakers win the next one, it’s over. If the Suns win, it’s a three game series, with the advantage to the Lakers (since they’re darned near unbeatable on their home floor…and they earned that advantage ).

  3. Mo - May 24, 2010 at 3:48 PM

    I agree with you re: the officiating. However, the Suns have been shooting terribly from distance all series and it’s not an accident. The only game they shot a reasonable percentage from three point range was game 2 and that was all due to Dudley’s 5-5 night (take that away and they were 5-19 in game 2). The Lakers defend the 3 better than any team in the league, which is very unfortunate for the Suns. As long as we’re talking hypotheticals, if the Lakers shot their usual % from three, they would be up 3-0.

  4. Larry - May 24, 2010 at 4:21 PM

    The Lakers were one of the worst shooting 3 point teams all season. They actually made a ridiculous percentage the first two games. That being said, they are one of the best defending against the 3 point shot. No aberations here. The series should be 2-1 as it is.
    Phoenix has no one to slow Kobe a bit as they had 3 years ago with Bell and Marion, thus he will do as he pleases. That makes the series next to impossible for PHX to win. You can’t have a player of Kobe’s caliber being a play maker when he pleases and a scorer when he wants and win with their over all talent level. PHX needs to go out and re-sign Bell as he is a free agent this summer. Of course if Amare opts out and leaves it won’t matter.

  5. mick the ripper - May 24, 2010 at 5:57 PM

    @Larry, you don’t need to stop Kobe he will get his pts any way he pleases. You just need to stop the rest of the team from getting open looks. Kobe had one of his best performances of the playoffs last night, with a near triple double and still couldn’t manage to win. LA needs Bynum in to win plain and simple, without him on the court they are playing to the Suns strengths. They become a small team and lose a lot of their ability to play from the inside out. If Bynum’s health keeps deterring I give Phx the series. Lopez is bringing so much toughness to this series and Odom cannot stop Amare.

  6. setting suns - May 24, 2010 at 6:36 PM

    hahahahaha…. sure… we’ll see if you have that same tone when whenthe LA Fakers, oh i mean Lakers loose again… hahahaha…

  7. suns ball - May 24, 2010 at 6:39 PM

    Um larry,
    Check your stats… the suns were ranked 3rd…

  8. Magic Kenny - May 24, 2010 at 6:53 PM

    Yeah…when the Lakers “loose” again. “Loose” as in “Who let the grammatically-impaired moron loose?”
    A dude who couldn’t find his butt with both hands and a compass (let alone construct a coherent sentence) insulting a Laker fan…good times, my friends.

  9. Ralph - May 24, 2010 at 7:14 PM

    I agree it was clear that no matter what the Lakers’ did the referees were going to find any reason to find a way to get the Sun’s to the line…….It was clear to anyone who watched the game last night that Officiating was crappy at best.

  10. NRESQ - May 24, 2010 at 7:22 PM

    Officiating is always crappy in the NBA. Having said that, I understand that PHX was going to draw more fouls than the Lakers based on the style each team played in Game 3. But the Lakers being whistled for OVER TWICE AS MANY FOULS???? Talk about ticky tack, a large percentage of the fouls were just ridiculous. This is the playoffs; no one wants to see the refs decide games.

  11. NickLA - May 24, 2010 at 8:07 PM

    If you’re a laker fan, u have to absolutely love this. we got challenged by the loudest home crowd in oklahoma, we lost 2 in that series where we faced feisty youngsters. now, we face a phoenix side who through the luck of dallas losing to san antonio got to the final. u can’t win them all. i will take losses along with lessons learned. look for the lakers to rip the phoenix zone to shreds. game 4 will be a massacre of the lost suns, and they all know it, including their illegal immigrant gringo owner:)
    robbin lopez is a psychotic looking freak of nature who has no business getting 20 and we never defended stoudimire, just gave him an open lane. we started lethargic. that will not happen this time. by the time the 4th quarter comes, there will be a nail in that illegal coffin and the procession will be nearing tucson on its way back to mexico.

  12. Anonymous - May 24, 2010 at 9:53 PM

    @Omnius: Yup this is the Western Conference where stronger stuff are made off and many of the cry babies are yonder over the east of the River. *cough* *Pierce* *cough*
    @DK Anderson: I agree. As a Laker fan AND an NBA fan, I refuse to use the refs as a scapegoat just because my team lost.
    @Larry: Well said on both posts.
    @Mick: Yup, points to ponder. The Suns can get an upset if they continue to bring down LA’s bigs into foul trouble especially now that Bynum is starting to get ineffective due to his knee problem.
    @setting sun: Another one of those doofuses I’ve been talking about. How can the Lakers be fakes considering their accomplishments even in recent years? What have your Suns have to show, huh? Who are the FAKES now? Idiot.
    @NickLA: Well said, bro. My sentiments exactly. No excuses. The Suns deserved the win. Question is, which teams would show up in Game 4? I still like my chances of LA getting into the Finals.

  13. Foul Dwimmerlaik - May 24, 2010 at 10:01 PM

    Oh yeah, that was me who wrote the said post. Pardon for the typos. Bad habit for typing too fast for my own good without editing…

  14. luffy - May 25, 2010 at 1:14 AM

    I’m a lakerfan but I give this one to Phoenix, nice game, well-played defense and offense. After this season, I hope they get rid of Channing Frye though, I doubt if any team would be interested in him anyways…
    This win brings more spice to the series…

  15. GinFizzBear - May 25, 2010 at 2:07 AM

    Great Game 3 analysis and thanks for giving us things to look for in Game 4.

  16. Lakers4Lyfe - May 25, 2010 at 2:16 AM

    You know the Lakers are having a bad night when Fisher makes 18 points. Odom and Artest need to step up. Artest looked just off balance the whole night and Odom was a no show. That said, there is no way the Lakers lose to the zone again … so keep trying it, because it won’t work again and you’ll be forced to play man on man where you can’t compete. If Bynum looks that bad in the first two minutes again, he needs to sit out the series, because he is hurting the team. Gotta love the guy for trying, but he was a half step behind and really looked injured. I hope Bynum gets traded in the off season; the guy is nothing but injury headaches all year. Bosch would look good in a Laker uniform, so lets hope for a sign and trade deal there. That said, we all know its Celtics and Lakers for the finals and this is just a speedbump. Oh, and Amare won’t have a second game with those numbers ever again in his entire NBA playoff career. He shot his wad.

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